Christian Worship in the First Century

Jun 17th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

If you could travel in time and attend a Christian worship service in the first century, what would it be like? Would a Presbyterian feel at home? How about a Catholic? The following is a re-recording of a lecture I gave to a group in Charlotte, NC last year on the subject of “liturgy in the first century.” With the current lead article on Holy Orders and the nature of the priesthood, it is relevant to explore the subject of early Christian worship. To determine what sort of leaders the early Christians had, it helps to understand what sort of action the early Christians understood as right worship. The historical evidence bears witness that the early Christian liturgy was not compatible with Protestant theology – even with the higher liturgical orientation of the original Reformers.

Listen to the lecture: (27 minutes)

 

Or download the MP3 here.

Original Notes:

Introduction

The following notes presuppose some familiarity with the Catholic mass.

The primary points of contact for our knowledge of the first century liturgy lie on one end with the Jewish liturgies, and the little data which can be gleaned from the New Testament, and the far later, but well documented, fourth century liturgies. We do have a few texts, reliable but vague, from the second and third century that help us piece together the puzzle. But ultimately our study lies in drawing on what we know from these ends, and reconstructing the development in-between.

Three liturgies would have been common place in the first century: the Synaxis, the Eucharist, and the Agape meal. We will look at these each individually but first, a few milestones or key points of interest are important to keep in mind:

The Judeo-Centricity of Early Christianity

  1. For about the first 10 years of Christianity, it was almost exclusively composed of Jewish converts.
  2. The early Christians were in the habit of attending temple daily.1
  3. The early Christians continued celebrating in the Synagogues alongside the Jews on the Sabbath for several years in some places.
  4. Up to nineteen years after Christ’s resurrection, new converts to Christianity, generally speaking, had to convert to Judaism before becoming Christian. Namely, they were to be circumcised, to eat Kosher, and to follow the Mosaic Law. The Jerusalem Council was called to settle this controversy in 49 AD2
  5. St. James, the bishop of Jerusalem, while the temple was still standing was in the habit of wearing the priestly robes, entering the temple, and offering intercessory prayer on behalf of his flock.3

The Domesticity of Worship

The Jews allowed Gentiles to participate in their public liturgies at the Synagogue. Gentiles were even allowed to enter the outer courts of the temple.4 But there was a rigorous exclusion of Gentile participation in the sacred home liturgies (such as the Seder meal). Initially Christians had no public liturgy, only domestic liturgy and so the controversies regarding the direct inclusion of the Gentile converts into the Christian Church are easily understood within this context.5

The Destruction of the Temple

In AD 70, the temple was destroyed. This was an earth shattering event for the Jews and a radical shift for the Jewish-Christians. It was a powerful sign that the “Kingdom” had come “with power.”6

The book of Hebrews was written in the 60s to explain to the Jewish Christians that Jesus was the true High Priest,7 that animal sacrifices were no longer necessary,8 and that Christ’s sacrifice was perpetually sufficient.9 These facts seems obvious to us in hindsight, but they weren’t obvious to the early Jewish Christians, particularly while the temple was still standing.

The Synaxis

Synaxis‘ is the Greek word meaning “meeting” and is the organic continuity of the Saturday Synagogue worship. When the Christians were no longer allowed in the synagogues, they continued celebrating approximately the same rite with added Christian developments and themes. The original liturgies would have been held, like the synagogue service, in Hebrew, and some of the words, like “amen” and “hallelujah,” survive to this day. In the early part of the first century, it is unlikely that the Synaxis would have be recognizably different from the Synagogue service except for the setting. The Synaxis can be understood as the seed of what we now call the Liturgy of the Word.10 Some key differences include that, in the first century, there were no introduction rites, no penitential rite and no Gloria. These were all later developments.

Basic Structure

  1. Greeting and Response (The Lord be with you – or Peace be unto you)
  2. Lections & Psalmody (The Jews read in order of descending importance, starting with the Pentateuch. The early Christian kept the original order of the Synagogue, but as Christian Scripture became available, it was tacked on at the end. Thus the order of importance became reversed for Christians. They read in ascending order of importance)
    i. Old Testament Reading
    ii. Pslamody (or chanted Psalm)
    iii. New Testament Reading (sometimes included non-canonical books like 1 Clement)
    iv. Psalmody
    v. Gospel Reading
  3. Homily (Bishop delivers while seated)
  4. Dismissal of Catechumens by Deacon
  5. Intercessory Prayers of the Faithful
  6. Dismissal of the Faithful

Occasionally a collection would be taken for the poor at the end. This was not the offertory.

The Eucharist

Derived from the Seder meal, in its fullest proper setting, the Eucharist is the celebration of the new Passover. ‘Pascha‘ (or Easter) is the pinnacle of Christian worship. Initially, it is possible that in some or many Christian Churches, the Eucharist was celebrated but once a year at Passover. The celebration of this high feast of Christian worship expanded to Jewish feast days like Pentecost, and by no later than the end of the first century, the liturgical practice of the Church was to celebrate every Sunday as a mini-Easter. The Eucharist would have been celebrated early on Sunday morning, a working day in the Roman empire.

The Eucharist was understood as the duty of the bishop and initially, we have every reason to believe that all Eucharists were celebrated by the bishop. But as the Church grew, this became impractical. By the end of the first century, this duty was being delegated to presbyters.11

Basic Structure

  1. Greeting & Response
  2. Kiss of Peace
  3. Offertory (Communicants bring their own bread & wine to the deacon who sets them on the altar)
  4. Eucharistic Prayer (The earliest Eucharistic prayer would have been simply a direct continuity of the Jewish eucharistic (thanksgiving) prayer with added Messianic meaning. Noticeable differences in the first century Eucharistic prayer and today’s include: a. no Sanctus, b. no Lord’s prayer, c. no narrative) The Anaphora of Hippolytus is the oldest Eucharistic prayer we have in tact and it dates around AD 215.
  5. Fraction
  6. Communion (Received standing)
  7. Dismissal

The Agape

There was probably a time where the Agape meal was celebrated along with the Eucharist, as seems to be the case in 1 Corinthians 11. But this practice died out sometime in the first century although the Agape continued by itself for several centuries. The only specific and technical reference to the Agape in the New Testament is found in Jude.12

The Agape has connections with Mediterranean funeral feasts, said in honor of a deceased hero or family member, and with the Jewish chaburah meal. This was a communal meal Jews would eat on the eve of the Sabbath and all important Jewish feasts. Jesus would have had this meal many times with His disciples. The Christian “Agape meal” was liturgical, although less formal than the Eucharist or even the Synaxis. Only baptized Christians were allowed to participate in this meal.

Like all early Christian liturgies, it was celebrated in the home. But unlike the Eucharist, it would not be celebrated in the atrium/tablinum area but in the dining room (triclinium). Thus, it would be celebrated by smaller numbers and in various homes throughout the Christian community.13 The Christians traditionally celebrated the Agape on Sunday evenings.

Basic Structure

  1. Introductory Prayer (the president blesses the food)
  2. Meal (In the West, it seems that the breaking of the bread was part of the meal; in the East, it followed the meal. In the West, each person blessed their own cup which would have been consistent with the Jewish tradition at the chaburah meal as opposed to the communal cup for high feasts like the Seder meal.)
  3. Washing of Hands
  4. Lighting of the Lamp (brought in by the deacon, blessed by the bishop)
  5. Psalms/Hymns
  6. Bishop blesses the cup (kiddish or kiddush cup, not the cup of blessing which was reserved for the Eucharist only.)
  7. Bishop gives thanks for the bread and distributes

Notice the order in contrast to the Eucharist. In the Agape meal, the cup precedes the bread. The Agape is described using the name “eucharist” in the Didache chapter 9. We know this because the cup precedes the bread. Later, in chapter 14, the Eucharist proper is explained. The term Eucharist means “thanksgiving” of course, and in the first century, it was not yet a technical reference to what we now call the Eucharist. Any prayer of thanksgiving at a meal would have been a “eucharistic prayer.”

Summary

By the end of the first century, the standard Christian liturgical observations would be as follows. On Saturday, you would attend the Synaxis. On Sunday morning you would attend the Eucharist, before dawn. You would go to work that day and then in the evening, you would attend an Agape meal at the house of a presbyter or perhaps the bishop’s house.

Suggested reading:

Mike Aquilina, The Mass of the Early Christians

Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy

  1. Acts 2:46 []
  2. Acts 15 []
  3. Recorded by Hegesippus and Preserved by Eusebius in Church History 2.23.4-6. Compare with the requirements for priestly garments in Exodus 28:41-43. []
  4. Dix, Gregory The Shape of the Liturgy, p. 16 (1945) []
  5. See particularly Galatians 1-2 []
  6. Mark 9:1. Also see Mark 13 & its synoptic parallels. []
  7. e.g. Hebrews 4:14 []
  8. Hebrews 9:9,23, 10:1, etc… []
  9. Hebrews 10 []
  10. The “Liturgy of the Word” is the first part of the Catholic mass. []
  11. Thus in the early second century St. Ignatius of Antioch says to the Smyrnaeans, “Let that eucharist alone be considered valid which is celebrated in the presence of the bishop, or of him to whom he shall have entrusted it.” []
  12. Jude 1:12 []
  13. Paul seems to indicate that the “home” is the proper place for this in 1 Corinthians 11:22 (as opposed to the particular home which would likely have been blessed by the bishop as the location for celebrating the Eucharist.) Centuries later, certain canons forbade the use of Church buildings for Agape meals. []
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14 comments
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  1. You need to tie your article into archeology. The service or mass you describe is from the 5th century. Ruins show a totally different story. Eg. The oldest Christian Church discovered recently in Mendigo Israel show evidence of type of worship different from what you describe. This dates from around 230 AD. Early Christians had a totally different idea of Eucharist. There were no tabernacles. The words of institution were recited by all. They meant that the people were saying THEIR body and THEIR blood were going to be Christs presence in the world, in memory of Christ’s passion. It did not mean the bread and wine where magically changed. Worship was in Greek not Latin, and often in Hebrew. Dance and drums were also part of worship. Women and men were priests. Evidence from Egypt shows many early Christians worshiped out of doors or in open air atrium. The home church was common until the 600 and 700s. The early eklesia was run by laity who elected priests and bishops. There was no formal clergy or hierarchy. Please get your website caught up with modern discoveries.

  2. MNS,

    This sounds like your making bogus claims behind the screen of archeology.

    Archeology can never prove that: “The words of institution were recited by all” or that there were “women and men priests” or that “dance and drums were part of worship.”

    Godspeed,
    Taylor

  3. MNS – there is also patristic evidence contemporary to AD 230 and prior that proves those claims false.

  4. MNS, which archeological find, specifically, would substantiate these claims? In fact I did read about the Church find in Israel, but I somehow missed the part where they found evidence that the early Christians worshiped and behaved more like post 1960 hippies than people from the Judeo-Mediterranean culture.

    Also, like Taylor and Sean said, even if they did find a mural somewhere that had a bunch of hippies in a circle singing John Lenon’s “Imagine” as the entrance hymn, you’d still have to corroborate your novel theory with the fact that it is decidedly out of sync with every piece of written evidence that we have from that time period. e.g. St. Ignatius (107 AD) does, in fact, describe a very formal clerical structure and several fathers, including the council of Nicaea, condemned the ordination of women even to the diaconate. Also every father, without exception, affirms the real presence of the Eucharist.

    I’d also like to hear your theory of why the top liturgical historians of the 20th century, e.g. Dix and Botte, were so plain confused… How did they miss the hippies?

  5. MNS,
    Your submission to certain sources of information as authoritative is purely subjective and on weak historical ground. Even if what you assert about the discovered location were true, what makes you think that the site in question is not one of the numerous heretical assemblies of the period that claimed to be the “Catholic” church.
    In 1000 years when archeologists discover some Mormon Tabernacle or Kingdom Hall, should they assert that this is how the Christians of the period believed and worshipped?

  6. It is good to understand the history of the early Church. I find that many people, because of the lack of knowledge get confused. The flow from Jewish worship structure to evolving modifications is logical and makes sense. Thanks.

  7. Greetings!

    Many years ago I came across a debate – Karl Keatiing and Dave Hunt on “Is the Catholic Church identifiable
    with the Early Church. Dave ran around and found it hard to cope with Karl’s spirited “yes”. And when he
    finally ran aground he blurted this one out – “Jesus Christ died naked on the Cross”!
    Well – what has this to do with the price of fish? But anyways my Evangelical son says that the Bible records –
    “they drew lots for his clothes”

    Sorry that this off beam, but has anyone come across this debate?
    Sincerely, Nik

  8. @Nik:

    Jesus Christ died naked on the Cross

    Can’t imagine why there would be a debate on this, and it doesn’t seem to me as though the Scripture text is decisive – if I take my clothes off, does that necessarily imply my underwear?

    Nevertheless, I have always assumed that they did, indeed, strip Him starkers – the humiliation was part of the point – and that the modern Crucifixes with Jesus wearing a modest loincloth are for modern sensibilities. The Shroud of Turin, if that is, indeed, the image of Christ, seems to show the head of His penis sticking out from His hands.

    It seems also nearly certain that the nails were driven through His wrists, not His hands, as in most Crucifixes – the weight of the body would, I am told, have torn through the hands, and the only crucified skeleton that has been found was crucified through the wrists. And when He carried the Cross, it is probable that He carried the crossbeam – the upright being already in the ground – and that He was nailed to the crossbeam, then lifted into position in a notch in the crossbeam.

    I cannot imagine what any debate about this – or about the silly Jehovah’s witnesses’ saying that it was not a Cross, it was a “torture stake” – with no crossbeam – could possibly have to do with whether the Catholic Church is the true descendant of the early church.

    jj

  9. my question is did the first converts of the church question the veracity of “worshiping one man” or “one mere man”.what did they say . but then they heard from the church what he had done and who he was then their hearts opened up to worshiping one man.

  10. Mike, sorry I’m not sure how I missed your question for so long. I do not understand it. If you’re still around, can you clarify?

  11. Well, clearly this represents an informed opinion, but not an absolute reflection of the scholarly consensus. For example, there is much contemporary research pointing to the Temple orientation – and not the Passover – of the Eucharist. Evidently, this was also quite important to the author of Hebrews as well.

    I am not aware of any serious scholarship that presents the view that mns puts forward.

  12. Anon – My largest single source for this outline was Gregory Dix. He was pretty serious.

  13. I know I’m late in this response – it’s now 2013 but after reading it I felt I needed to respond. I think it’s clear from historical writings that the early church – at least the first 20 years – followed a model for their worship from the Jewish Temple/Synagogue. The Bible tells us that the Disciples were in the Temple daily – as was their custom. With no New Testament and no real instructions on “Order of Service” – they kind of “winged” it – taking from their Jewish roots, from Paul’s letters, from Traditions passed to them by the Apostles and finally from the Councils like the one in Nicea. It would appear that our Christian tradition, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant has morphed here and there as the years have gone by. I mean, the Catholic Church no longer endorses the selling of “Indulgences” – at least to my knowledge it doesn’t. We are to worship Jesus in Spirit and in Truth – I’m not sure I totally understand that but I’m positive it’s more than just repeating a few scriptures, taking communion and going home. I’m sure it’s got more to do with a heart attitude issue. God is more concerned with your heart than He is with what tradition you follow. At the same time, I believe in celebrating Holy Communion each Sunday and we also have a liturgy but I’m more concerned with people’s hearts towards Jesus – is He their Master and God?

  14. Hello John –I am not scholar, but there are some ambiguities in your response that I would like (respectfully) to try to parse. First, when the Bible tells us that the Disciples were in the Temple daily, that means that they were in the Temple of Jerusalem, not a synagogue. There is only one Temple, and it was destroyed in 70AD. As such, they would be praying along with the other Jews as they were accustomed, but also meeting separately in homes for their own worship–of course they wanted to gather together to talk about Jesus among themselves and break bread together as they were commanded! It is natural to assume, and what I know of the records they support, the idea that these meetings had a certain formality of structure that was loosely modeled on Jewish practices. As far as “worshiping Jesus in Spirit and Truth” being more that “repeating a few scriptures, taking communion and going home,” I must assume that you have very little experience with or knowledge of people in the CAtholic Church who take their faith seriously, more’s the pity. If we are lacking in our ability to model the richness of our f aith, I assure you it is not lacking in the history of our Holy Martyrs and Saints. So please let me explain “repeating a few scriptures,” means listening to the Word of God. Something I have done every Sunday for the past 60 years (although for the first 4 I was not that attentive.) Believe me, attending to the proclamation of the Word of God is not a negligible thing, but a source of strength and knowledge of The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit , and how we are to cooperate with His plans for our salvation. As for ” {just} taking communion” that’s not a felicitous phrase for what really happens. What we do is “Participate in the Eucharist” (from the Greek word meaning “thanksgiving”) by “receiving the Body and Blood of Christ” as per His instructions. This is the central act of Catholic Christian Worship, and what many people nowadays forget, is that we are not to receive it “unworthily.” Which means that we are not to have committed any grave sins of commission or omission. If the average Catholic were still being reminded of this requirement, there would be no question of whether or not people’s “hearts were towards Jesus.” Because they would not only be avoiding evil, but doing good according to Christ’s commands, which are helpfully clarified by the Catholic Church as the sacred and secular acts of mercy (I’ve gone on too long, look them up.) I hope that helps.

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